Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins Canada; 352 pages; 2012.
Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride is set in post-war Montreal and tells the story of a Jewish refugee and the daughter she abandoned a few months after her birth.
A Polish refugee
Lily Azerov is Polish and has no living relatives. She hopes to start a new life in Canada, where she is due to marry a man with whom she has been corresponding for some time. But when Sol Kramer sees her step off the train, he rejects her as “damaged goods”.
All, however, is not lost. Sol’s younger brother, Nathan, marries her instead, and the couple set up home with Nathan’s widowed mother, Bella.
But Lily, presumably grief-stricken by the loss of so many family members in the Second World War, cannot really function properly and holes herself up in her room, too miserable and depressed to talk to anyone. When she gives birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter called Ruth, things do not get any easier, and one day, under the pretense of going out to buy a quart of milk, she never returns.
This sets up the premise for a multi-layered, finely crafted novel about the ways in which these two women’s lives are forever bound to one another, and how one decision — to walk out on someone you love — can have a lifetime’s worth of repercussions.
A stolen identity
But there’s much more to this tale than initially meets the eye. Lily is not really Lily. She has taken the identity of a woman, whose body she found in a Polish village in 1944. Her one mistake is not simply to take the woman’s identity card, her diary, some items of clothing and a rough, uncut diamond, but to make contact with the woman’s cousin, Sonya, in Palestine (presumably to gain some information about the family in order to make her new identity fit better).
The cousin’s suspicions are raised immediately, but she agrees not to expose “Lily” and helps arrange her marriage in Canada. Sonya writes to her relatives in Montreal — Ida Pearl, a jewellery shop owner, and her teenage daughter, Elka — and tells them: “The lucky bridegroom’s name is Kramer. Go to her wedding and weep.”
They do — and promptly become entwined in the lives of the Kramers. Indeed, Elka eventually marries Sol and becomes Lily’s sister-in-law. But this sets into play an element of danger — now that Ida and Elka know that Lily is an imposter, will they expose her secret to the world?
The narrative, which spans more than 50 years, is told in alternate third-person and first-person chapters.
The third-person element tells Lily’s side of the story but covers the short period between her arrival in Canada and her disappearance.
The first-person element is from her daughter Ruth’s perspective, told as an elderly woman looking back on her life, so that we see her grow from a young girl to a married woman with three children of her own. During this time, the only connection she has with her mother is a series of rocks sent to her anonymously during her childhood, the first of which arrives on her sixth birthday and is accompanied by a note stating: “South shore of Gem Lake, Manitboa, 08:45, Apil 12th, 1953, clear, 31 degrees F, light wind.”
A story about family
There are lots of strands to this novel, which explores in great depth the outfall of Lily’s disappearance on her new family, including her husband, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and even Ida Pearl, all of whom gather round Ruth and bring her up surrounded by love and support.
This is a story about a family — and its secrets — but it is also about grief and loss and the long-lasting psychological impact of the Second World War on ordinary people.
I loved the detailed world that Richler creates here — her characters are wonderfully alive, flawed and judgemental, but also hard-working, determined and independent. Her prose style is clean and elegant, and she has a terrific ear for dialogue so it feels like you are eavesdropping on real-life conversations.
But what I liked most, apart from the polished perfection of the plot and the seamlessly intertwined narrative threads, is her ability to make you empathise with everyone without turning The Imposter Bride into a sentimental, saccharine tale. Towards the end Richler deftly juggles a high-wire act that could have gone either way, but she pulls it off with aplomb and I was left with the lump the size of a golf ball in my throat.
While the world’s bookshelves are already groaning under the weight of countless books about Jewish immigrants, this one isn’t your usual run-of-the-mill story. It brims with dark secrets and hidden pasts, but above all it is about survival, hope, love and acceptance, and I would be very happy to see this one take the 2012 Giller Prize when it is announced next week — that’s if Will Ferguson’s 419 doesn’t get there first.